Image from our book Who Is Ana Mendieta? in Ana Mendieta exhibition catalogue, Hayward Gallery, London, England.
In 1992, the Guggenheim Museum in New York held the inaugural show for its new – and what would turn out to be short-lived – downtown art gallery in SoHo. The opening was memorable not for the art within, but the action outside. To enter the exhibition the great and the good of the New York art world had to pass a picket line of about 500 feminist protesters, many of them carrying banners that read: “Where Is Ana Mendieta?”
That question was directed at the male-dominated art establishment, which feminists claimed had already forgotten Ana Mendieta, who had died seven years earlier. What incensed the protesters even more was the inclusion in the show of a work by her former partner, the minimalist sculptor Carl Andre. To them, as well as to Mendieta’s family and many of her friends, Andre was responsible for her death.
In the early hours of 8 September 1985, Mendieta had – to borrow the words Andre had used when he called the emergency services – “somehow gone out the window” of their 34th floor apartment on Manhattan’s Mercer Street.
Both had been drinking heavily. Andre later claimed to remember nothing of the events leading up to her death and that she may even have committed suicide, but those that knew her well – and knew of her acute fear of heights – thought this unlikely. Many of them believed he had pushed or even thrown her out of the window during a drunken argument.
“What happened that night, no one will ever know,” says the artist Ted Victoria, a close friend of Mendieta who still lives and works in a studio in SoHo close to where she first lived after arriving in New York. “But the notion that she would jump out the window in her underwear – no. She had too much going for her at the time, more so than him. Her work was being noticed. And she wasn’t depressed.
“I know because I saw her a few nights before her death. She was up and happy. She hated heights, so she would not have climbed up on the window, which was close to, and just above, the bed in their apartment. My guess is they were fighting and it just happened, this terrible thing.”
“Most people thought he had done something active,” says Dotty Attie, an artist and friend of Mendieta from when they both belonged to the all-women AIR gallery in New York in the early 1980s. “Others, who knew him, could not believe it. Most of his women friends supported him, but people wanted to blame somebody. There was a lot of division in the New York art world over her death. People took sides.”
When the police arrived, they found the couple’s bedroom in a mess and Andre with scratch marks on his nose and arms. His initial statements differed from his recorded message to the emergency services. He was arrested and later charged with murder. In court, a doorman testified that he heard a woman screaming “No” several times around 5.30am, and then the thud of her body as it hit the roof of the all-night delicatessen below.
After three separate indictments, Andre was acquitted on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence to prove that he had pushed her during a drunken row. Many of her friends remain unconvinced of his innocence. They cite contradictions in his police interviews, and his decision to be tried by a judge rather than a jury – which meant that the evidence was weighed up without him being cross-examined by the prosecution.
“There were too many things that were just not right about the trial,” says the feminist writer and academic B Ruby Rich, a friend and staunch supporter of Mendieta, who wrote a long, critical article in the Village Voice newspaper following the failure of the first indictment. “Not least the cynical way in which his lawyers tried to use her art to back up the suggestion that she committed suicide. Many powerful figures in the New York art world colluded in that.”
Until recently, the question asked by those feminist protesters might have been amended to “Who is Ana Mendieta?”, so unknown was her art outside the rarefied world of feminist art criticism. But, as the recent big show of her work at the Whitney Museum in New York and the imminent retrospective at the Hayward gallery in London attests, Mendieta is undergoing a reappraisal as a pioneering artist whose work, as the Hayward’s artistic director, Ralph Rugoff, notes “ranged nomadically across practices associated with body art, land art, performance, sculpture, photography and film”.
Cuban-born and American-raised, Mendieta described her work as “earth-body” art. From 1971, when she had her first solo show while an MA student at the University of Iowa, until her death, she created a diverse collection of work that included silhouettes of her body created in mud, earth, rocks, wild flowers and leaves, performance pieces that evoked the folk and occult traditions of her native Cuba as well as her beloved Mexico and subversive self-portraits that played with notions of beauty, belonging and gender. In her performance pieces, where she sometimes used blood “as a very, powerful magical thing”, she evoked the power of female sexuality as well as the horror of male sexual violence. In her photographic self-portraits, she pressed her face against glass to distort her features or pictured herself dripping in blood or disguised as a man with glued-on facial hair.
Mendieta’s art, like her spirit, was fuelled by a restlessness rooted in her exile from Cuba. Friends described her variously as “sparky”, “provocative”, “tempestuous”, “outspoken” and “fiercely ambitious.” After her death, many saw, in her often dark and ritualistic art, a foreshadowing of her fate – she once staged a performance in which visitors came upon her prone under a blood-splattered white sheet. Others claimed her as the freest of female free spirits in a male-dominated art world. The curator and scholar Irit Rogoff, her as “essentialised through an association of wild appetites and with unbounded female sexuality.” It is only now that the power of her art is finally taking precedence over the stereotypes that were thrust upon her and the darkly dramatic manner of her death.
Mendieta was born in November 1948, the second of three children to Ignacio and Raquel Mendieta, a well-off, upper-middle-class couple. Her father, a supporter of Fidel Castro, was made an assistant in the post-revolutionary ministry of state in 1959 but, disillusioned with the anti-Catholicism of the new Cuba, later became involved in organising counter-revolutionary activities. As did his two daughters, Ana and Raquelin, aged 12 and 14. Fearing for their safety, he arranged for their passage to America, in 1961 through Operation Pedro Pan, a scheme organised by a priest in Miami that allowed around 14,000 children to leave the country and enter the US under the guardianship of the Catholic church. “For Ana, it was an adventurous thing,” her sister Raquelin later remembered, “When we arrived in Miami, she kissed the ground.”
Her euphoria was short-lived. After a time in which they were given over to the care of an Iowa reform school, where beatings and confinement were common punishments for the slightest misdemeanour, the sisters were separated and spent several years being shunted from one foster home to another. Ana felt abandoned by her family and isolated from her homeland. She did not see her mother and brother again until 1966, or her father, who was jailed for disloyalty to Castro, until 1979. He died soon after arriving in America.
“You have to understand she came to America with nothing,” says Victoria. “That sense of exile was something she carried with her as well as a fierce independence of spirit. She would talk about it sometimes when she’d had a few drinks. I mean, coming from the heat and fire of Cuba to puritan Iowa would leave its mark on anyone and she had that survivor’s spirit.
“She was driven in everything she did and that made her feisty and combative as well as great and generous company.”
Mendieta began making art at the University of Iowa, where she had a decade-long affair with the artist and academic Hans Breder, perhaps her most important formative influence. It was Breder who drew her attention to the notion of cross-disciplinary practice, citing the likes of Marcel Duchamp, Yves Klein and the Viennese actionists as creative touchstones as well as organising visits by contemporary avant garde artists such as Hans Haacke and Vito Acconci.
In the summer of 1971, Mendieta travelled to Mexico for research, describing the experience as “like going back to the source, being able to get some magic just by being there.” Her vision – of a unified art of the self, drawing on nature and place as well as performance and sculpture – was being formed. Its first manifestation was also one of the rawest: a series of visceral performances created in response to the 1973 rape and murder of a university student, Sara Ann Otten.
By 1974, Mendieta was working on a series of performances that used blood as the primary material, including Body Tracks, in which she dips her hands and forearms in blood then smears them down a wall. Everything she did was documented on film or photographs, often by Breder.
In the summer of 1975, having returned to Mexico, she created the first of her Siluetas series in which she left an imprint of her body in the ground. Her silhouette pieces became a kind of signature, and were often executed in stones, leaves and twigs, flowers and driftwood, and sometimes set on fire, outlined by fireworks or drenched with red paint. “My art is grounded on the belief in one universal energy which runs though everything,” she wrote in an artist’s statement from the early 1980s, “from insect to man, from man to spectre, from spectre to plant, from plant to galaxy.”
Rich, though, insists that Mendieta’s art is as much rooted in the feminism of the time as any art tradition. “She came out of the feminist movement as much as Cuba. In the 1970s, blood was being reclaimed as a feminine – and a feminist – material in art. Plus her early earth works, particularly those made in Mexico, are very potent because they are made by a woman.
“People place her in the earth works tradition of Robert Smithson or Richard Long, but when a woman engages with the earth it is a very different statement. Her body was her art and she placed it in the ground. In doing so, she was trying to ground herself in the earth but also reconnect with the earth that she was standing on even if it was not Cuba.”
Mendieta arrived in New York in 1978. She found a tiny apartment on Sullivan Street and eventually made friends with some of the leading feminist artists of the time, including Nancy Spero, Mary Beth Edelson and Carolee Schneemann. When Edelson organised a fancy-dress party for Louise Bourgeois, Mendieta went as Frida Kahlo. In 1979, also with Edelson’s support, she joined the AIR all-women gallery on Wooster Street. “We didn’t have a unifying agenda or way of thinking,” says Attie, a founding member, “except that we wanted everything that men had in the art world. For most of us, that meant recognition.”
It was through Spero that Mendieta met Andre. Their relationship intrigued some of their friends and baffled others: she was feisty and opinionated, small and sexy; he came across as cold and detached, his towering presence as formidable as his intellectual aloofness. “Carl and Ana were very different personalities and that is what attracted them to each other,” says the Argentinian artist Liliana Porter, a friend of Mendieta. “Carl was very methodical in his daily life, following routines, and Ana was the opposite. He liked her strong personality, her looks and her intensity and she enjoyed his company and in some way needed a more mature and steady point of re ference.”
Creatively, though, their art practices could not have been further apart: hers was wide-ranging, elemental and ritualistic; he was a minimalist whose work was refined and cerebral.(Andre is still best known in Britain for his infamous arrangement of 120 bricks at the Tate.) It is one of the ironies of her early death that her star was in the ascendancy as he was entering a period in which demand for his work fell and prices dipped accordingly. Often, when drink had been taken, she would taunt him about this, once saying, “You know, Carl, minimalism is over… you already did your thing.” He would respond in kind.
“They drank a lot,” remembers Victoria. “They would arrive around here for dinner with four or five bottles of champagne. There were arguments, mostly started by Ana. She was combative. She could bring out stuff that would really piss you off. That was just how she was when she was drunk. She had loads of attitude.”
Attie concurs: “I had dinner with her and Carl in Rome and they both got very drunk. I remember her saying, ‘Oh, he likes your work, but he’s never bought anything.’ It was mischievous and pointed and they went to it arguing. “But I didn’t get the feeling he was ever violent. I remember she wanted to drive home and it was he who said no. He had self-control even when he was very drunk. I had a hard time thinking he would push her.”
Mendieta moved to Rome in 1983 on a prestigious American Academy residency and fell in love with the city, describing it to friends as a cross between Cuba and New York. “She felt accepted there in a way she never was in America,” says Rich. “She could be herself.” For a while, her relationship with Andre hit the rocks, then, surprising everyone who knew them, they reunited and married in a private ceremony in Rome in January 1985. On her return to New York in August, though, she told friends she suspected him of having an affair in Berlin, where he had been working off and on.
On Thursday 5 September 1985, the couple had dinner with Spero and her husband, the painter Leon Golub. Spero later described them as “happy and relaxed”. Three nights later, they stayed in to have a Chinese takeaway, watch a movie and drink champagne. The following day, she was found dead on the roof of the delicatessen, 33 floors below an open window of their apartment, her body having hit the surface so hard that her head left an imprint. Even her death echoed her art. “Ana was on her way somewhere else creatively when she was killed,” says Rich, pointedly. “She was starting to make objects rather than ephemeral works. Stuff she could sell. She was excited and optimistic.” Attie recalls meeting her in Rome earlier in the year and feeling the same. “She told me that she was making new work and that she was going to give up drinking and smoking because women artists did not get recognition until they were old. She said that she wanted to live long enough to savour it.”
Ana Mendieta: Traces is at the Hayward gallery, London, from Tuesday to 15 December. southbankcentre.co.uk, 0844 875 0073
From the introduction of Who Is Ana Mendieta?
I met Ana Mendieta when I gave a lecture in Iowa City in 1975. At a reception afterwards, she quite literally cornered me and told me about her work and her life story: exiled from revolutionary Cuba by her parents, with her older sister Raquelin, she spent sixteen years in Iowa, first in a group home for disturbed children and then in three foster homes, a boarding school, college and university, where she became an artist. We kept in touch; I began to publish her work; we saw each other often once she moved to New York in 1978 and her work became known. In 1981, I went to Cuba with her and a group of artists and feminists and we hung out with the new generation of young avant-garde artists there. Her volatile alliance with Carl Andre, an old friend and political comrade of mine, was surprising, but what the hell, it seemed to work. Still, most of us who knew both of these complex characters well were a bit wary, given the heavy drinking and the fact that neither of them pulled any punches.
I was driving back from summer in Maine when I heard on the radio that a sculptor had fallen to her death from a 34th floor apartment…. and that it was Ana. Carolee Schneemann, Mary Miss and I organized a memorial for her at the Center for Inter-American Relations (we didn’t know some Latinos called it the CIA). Foolishly or courageously, Carl attended, as did Ana’s family, which made for an extremely tense situation. She was buried in Iowa, where her extraordinary early works had been executed in the early 1970s, near the homes of her mother and brother. In the ensuing years before Andre’s final trial for Ana’s murder, the art world was polarized by their opinions of the case and the degree to which friendship, loyalty, and politics were brought to bear. Some defended him, some vilified him, some of us took the unpopular position that he was innocent until proven guilty. No one really knew what had happened that night; Carl claimed that he didn’t know either. They had both been drinking. After he was acquitted, however, it became even more difficult to deal with the possibilities of what might have happened, and his reluctance to talk about Ana. Yet the whole affair was merely a blip in his continued art-world success. If career competition (all too familiar to many women artists) was really a motive, which I doubt, he needn’t have worried.
This is the story, more or less, told in the graphic novella. The question “Who is Ana Mendieta?” is never answered, and it would take a far deeper analysis to even address it. Mendieta was unique even though her art could be seen as representing Everywoman. The Silueta series for which she is best known often featured blood, burial, and death. Much has been made of their prescient resemblances to her own demise. She once said that all of her art was about Eros and life/death, and she did have premonitions of an early death. But when I was asked by a DA during one of Andre’s trials whether she could have committed suicide, my answer was decidedly not. She was too vital, too engaged, too angry, too excited about life to give up.
But this book is not about contributions to contemporary art, or a tragic romance gone awry. It is a diatribe against violence against women, an activist protest in itself, one which Mendieta would have approved even before her death. When she was still a student at the University of Iowa, after a fellow student was raped, she “performed” two harshly graphic rape pieces in which her own bloodied, naked body was discovered in a room, and in the woods, by the unsuspecting audience. Art against rape was relatively common in the feminist art movement during the 1970s, one high point being Suzanne Lacy’s and Leslie Labowitz’s public protest performance In Mourning and in Rage, but I doubt if any had a more devastating impact.
Heir to Latin photo-novellas and to the wave of women’s comics that rose up in the 1960s, the graphic novel form is ideally suited to insurrection. Purely textual rants can be pedantic and off-putting. Graphically enhanced with facial expression, body language, and incisive draftsmanship, they become accessible and effective. A number of activist artists have turned to the comics to communicate complicated issues in simplified form. (I once made comics myself as “Lucy the Lip”; the heroine was “Polly Tickle.”) Christine Redfern and Caro Caron have taken on the Mendieta story as a microcosm of the societal fear of women that in turn engenders women’s fear of men. (My only quarrel with their interpretation – and its usually (appropriately) strident tone — is the treatment of Sol LeWitt as a patriarchal accomplice. Despite his 1967 “mini-skirt” comment – which none of us noticed in a period of zero feminist consciousness by men or women in the art world– no well-known male artist supported women and their work more than LeWitt.)
(Christine Redfern: My apologies to Sol LeWitt for presenting him as a “patriarchal accomplice”; he just happened to be the only minimalist I could find a decent photograph of to provide as a drawing reference — and I did find his Mini-art quote in Artforum pretty funny too.)
There have been several books and catalogues on Mendieta since her death, Olga Viso’s impressive biography/ anthology prime among them. I’ve worried that Ana would be “canonized” (or sensationalized) not so much for her life and art as for her death, like Eva Hesse, who died of brain cancer fifteen years earlier. There were curious parallels between Hesse and Mendieta’s lives: both were exiled to orphanages with their older sisters due to international conflicts; both were deprived of one parent; both were talented, beautiful, and neurotic; both had troubled marriages to fellow artists; both died in their thirties as they enjoyed growing success. Mendieta, who was older when she was exiled, became a fiercely ambitious advocate for her own salvation. Her return to Cuba (like Hesse’s return to Germany in the 1960s) was emotionally fraught, even though her father had by then been released from prison. (Ana gave me his trial transcript and we were going to make a video about the generations of her family and the revolution, but we didn’t get the grant.)
Feminism in the 1970s was, among many other things, a campaign to convince women that they didn’t have to be men to succeed, that sisterhood and female identity were desirable, even preferable to being one of the boys. Many works from the 1970s were gender-benders, whatever their makers’ sexual preferences. Mendieta was exposed to a number of feminist visiting artists while still in Iowa, among them Martha Rosler and Martha Wilson, both of whom worked with their own bodies to convey personal/political messages. As a child, her sister Raquelin recalls, Ana had wanted to be an actress, or was already an actress, and this played out in the performative aspect of all of her major work as an artist. In graduate school, citing Marcel Duchamp’s mustached Mona Lisa in two pieces, she sat beside a male friend as he shaved off his beard and she glued the hair to her own face. (There are parallels to Lynda Benglis’s famous double dildo piece: if you’re going to make it in the art world, you’d better have one of these.) Mendieta’s 1972 Glass on Body, in which she distorted her face into grimaces, recalls Wilson’s perfection/imperfection piece, and so forth. These were ideas in the air and thanks to the University of Iowa Intermedia Program, headed by her mentor and lover Hans Breder, Mendieta was exposed to some of the best.
Mendieta’s politics are rarely explored in the writings that followed her death. Although as a preteen in Cuba, she had distributed counter-revolutionary pamphlets with her sister, at the behest of her father, whose Catholic faith had cut short his initial sympathies with the Revolution (he was accused of collaborating with the CIA and imprisoned for years), she became a leftist after arriving in New York and was given to Marxist proclamations, which helped her reintegrate into revolutionary Cuba and the relatives she had left behind — some of whom were sympathetic to the Revolution, and some of whom weren’t. She returned to the island seven times between 1980 and 1983. After her grandparents’ deaths, she left for the last time, announcing that she would never return, having run afoul of government restrictions, although she was the only exiled Cuban who had been permitted to make public work in the country. Certainly American leftists (myself included) tend to be naïve about the realities of everyday life in countries whose ideologies we admire. (Cuban artist José Bedia, noting Mendieta’s stubborn denial of Cuban artists’ precarious positions, said wryly, “we have to live inside the theory.”) Certainly Italy, where Ana announced she would stay “forever,” offered the verve of Cuba with a far more relaxed and less personally charged political atmosphere.
When Ana was awarded the Prix de Rome in 1983, she arrived unannounced at my door and gave me a black ceramic pot with a hand-painted red hammer and sickle, announcing that this was her “revolutionary soul” and I should keep it for her. On one of her visits home, I told her that while it was sitting on a shelf over my desk, her pot had emitted a startling puff of smoke. I asked her if she’d used it to store gunpowder (for her volcano works); she was amused and denied it. But the fact that her “soul” was acting up independently was compatible with her belief in magic. Her longstanding interest in aboriginal Cuba and so-called “primitive” and ancient religions in Mexico and Europe informed the Siluetas, which were adopted by the once-powerful feminist “goddess movement” in the U.S. (I had hoped to have her Silueta in fireworks on the cover of my 1983 book Overlay: Contemporary Art and the Art of Prehistory, but was overruled by the publishers.) The Afro-Cuban religions of Santería and Abakuá were part of her passionate adoption of Cubanidad. Mendieta’s goddess was both a healer and an avenger.
“There is a devil inside me,” wrote Mendieta on at least two occasions. It was no doubt the incarnation of her outrage at being ripped from a happy childhood within a privileged extended family in a warm Latin country and exiled to a hostile foreign orphanage and foster homes in the cold American Midwest, where she was treated with incomprehension and disdain. Although she has been described as “white” by critics, probably because of her upper-class background, Mendieta was in fact “brown,” and strongly identified with people of color. Her personal history was also at the heart not only of her anger, but of an ongoing sense of isolation. Although her own body was her raw material, her art was never narcissistic, but rather a process of self-discovery, self-affirmation, and the exorcism of pain. In a 1982 text, she quoted the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset: “To be a hero, to be heroic, is to be oneself.” It was this conviction that nourished her art and made it significant. It may also have killed her. Tact was not Ana’s strong point. She conveyed an incredible intensity, an energy that could be simultaneously compelling and abrasive, always tinged by an underlying vulnerability that made it easier to empathize with her excesses.
Ana’s death is one of millions that, despite four decades of feminist struggle, remain underestimated — social crimes that have yet to be fully confronted. The issue is all too present today, in view of the unsolved murders of hundreds of women around the city of Juarez and in northern Mexico. The very directness of the graphic novella is an ideal vehicle for the outrage women feel about the extent of domestic and general violence against us. May there be many more visual outcries like this one, to avenge the loss of women like Ana Mendieta.